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Leopard vs. Jaguar: Similarities And Differences Explained

The Panthera genus is home to four big cats: lion, tiger, jaguar, and leopard. Lions and tigers are larger predators with distinct characteristics. Most people often confuse jaguars and leopards because of how similar they look. Both have spotted coats with similar colors. 

However, we are here to help you differentiate between a jaguar’s huge jaw muscles and a leopard’s strong but small jaw muscles. In this article, we will explore ten differences between leopards and jaguars. We will also discuss their classifications and black cats from both species.

Classification of Natural Predators: Leopard and Jaguar

leopard and jaguar side by side
Leopard, Photo by David Clode on Unsplash, and Jaguar, Photo by Oleksandr P on Pexels.

Jaguars and leopards are both members of the big cat Panthera genus but are separate species. Both fall into the subfamily Pantherinae of the Felidae cat family. Their scientific names are Panthera pardus and Panthera onca.

Subspecies of leopard are:

  • African Leopard - Africa
  • Arabian Leopard - Arabia
  • Indian Leopard - India
  • Sri Lankan Leopard - Sri Lanka
  • Javan Leopard - Java
  • Amur Leopard - Eastern Asia
  • Indochinese Leopard - South East Asia
  • Persian Leopard - South West Asia

Subspecies of jaguar are:

  • South American jaguar
  • Arizona jaguar - Arizona, New Mexico
  • Central American jaguar - El Salvador south to Columbia
  • Goldman's jaguar - Yucatan Peninsula south to Belize
  • West Mexican jaguar
  • Pantanal jaguar - Pantanal wetland of South America
  • Paraguay jaguar - Matto Grosso in Brazil to northern Argentina and Paraguay
  • Peruvian jaguar - coastal Peru
  • Northeastern Jaguar - Mexico, Texas

10 Differences Between the Big Cats: Leopards and Jaguars 

1. Head Shape

leopard head
Leopard, Photo by Gwen Weustink on Unsplash.

The key to differentiating between a leopard and a jaguar is the shape of their head. A leopard has a smaller and angular face, while jaguars have larger and rounded heads. The leopard has sharper cheekbones, clearly defined lines, and prominent ears. In contrast, the jaguar has a broad forehead, wide and powerful jaws, and massive teeth.

2. Body Shape & Size

Both jaguars and leopards are big cats. However, leopards are the smallest of all big cats—their weight is between 17 kg and 90 kg. A leopard has a slim body which grows up to 190 cm long. It also has short and stout limbs. 

Jaguars are larger than their sibling, leopards. A jaguar can weigh up to 136 kg and grow 180 cm long. 

Note that the leopard is a little longer than the jaguar. However, the male jaguar is always larger than its female counterpart. Jaguars are not runners. They have more power than speed, while leopards have speed. You’ll easily recognize a jaguar by its lean but muscular muscles.

3. Coat Color & Markings

jaguar coat and markings
Jaguar, Photo by David Waite on Unsplash.

Another critical difference between a leopard and a jaguar is their coat. They're both magnificent spotted big cats. However, there are differences in their spotted designs. Jaguars have a pale yellow, tan, or reddish yellow coat with a prominent dark rosette pattern.

The coat around their throats, belly, underside of the tail, and insides of the limbs are off-white. The black rosette patterns are scattered around the coat, with black spots in the rosettes. Also, the black rosettes on the jaguar’s right side are different from those on its left.

Leopards have coat colors ranging from chestnut brown to gray or pale yellow. The rosette pattern on a leopard’s coat covers its head, back, flanks, and upper limbs. Also, black leopards and jaguars with pure black fur are known as black panthers.

Unlike the jaguar’s rosettes, you can tell a leopard’s native region from its rosette shapes. A leopard from East Africa has a circular rosette pattern, while a leopard from South Africa has more circular spots. 

Leopards from Asian regions tend to have larger rosettes. The jaguar's rosettes are large and less grouped than a leopard's rosette.

Bearing the same name, a snow leopard has a pale coat with dark gray markings similar to leopards. However, they are more closely related to tigers than leopards1.

4. Geographical Range & Habitat

According to history, there were jaguars in 21 countries across the United States of America. Now, there are jaguars in 19 countries: Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Panama, Peru, Colombia, Honduras, Perú, and so on. They're primarily native to South and Central America.

You will see leopards widely distributed in sub-Saharan Africa. History shows that the leopard's population has dwindled in western and northern Africa, the Middle East, Russia, and Asia.

Both wild cats prefer habitats with vegetation. Jaguars prefer dense and tropical wet lowland forests with plenty of vegetation cover. You'll also find them in coastal forests, swampy savannas, scrublands, and reed thickets. 

Jaguars also love water, and they enjoy swimming a lot. Therefore, you'll likely see their habitats near slow-moving streams, lagoons, rivers, and swamps. Jaguars are not fans of elevated heights, so you rarely see them in areas above 8,500 ft.

You can also find jaguars in some dry lands like desert scrub, semidesert grassland, madrean evergreen woodland, and the conifer forests of northwestern Mexico, southwestern United States, and Chaco and Cerrado of South America.

Leopards live in various habitats, from boreal forests to arid deserts. They prefer areas with vegetation cover, so they won't be found on open desert lands. They can be seen along rocky areas and water courses.

5. Tails

leopard tail
Leopard, Photo by Geoff Brooks on Unsplash.

Jaguars have a short tail despite being the largest big cat in the animal jungle. A leopard’s tail is longer than a jaguar’s. Its length ranges between 51 cm and 101cm, while the jaguar's tail length ranges from 70 cm to 90 cm. 

A leopard’s long tail helps it maintain balance, while a jaguar's shorter tail compliments its muscular body shape. 

6. Diet

jaguar diet
Jaguar, Photo by Bob Adams on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Leopards generally avoid water, so they can go without drinking water for ten days. They can get all the moisture they need from the food they eat. Leopards tend to prefer any meat meal that crosses their way. They can eat cheetah cubs, large birds, fish, snakes, amphibians, warthogs, rodents, baboons, porcupines, and monkeys.

They are also the only big cats to drag their meals up the trees, protecting themselves and their catch from other predators.

Jaguars have an extensive diet range and prefer larger prey. They consume over 85 species of other terrestrial prey, including opossums, rabbits, armadillos, caimans, turtles, livestock, peccary, and deer. Jaguars also eat smaller prey when large animals are absent.

7. Speed

Both jaguars and leopards are not the fastest in the big cat family. However, they do have enough speed, which makes them apex predators. Leopards are faster than jaguars because they have a lighter body mass. 

Leopards and jaguars are ambush predators. They stalk their prey and wait for the last moment before they pounce with a suffocating bite. Jaguars sprint up to 50 mph over short distances, while leopards’ speed can reach 60 mph.

8. Reproduction

leopard mating
Leopard, Photo by Kody8958 on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

A major difference between leopards and jaguars is reproduction. Leopards mate throughout the year in Africa and India, but it is different for leopards in China. They mate from January to February, while Jaguars mate from December to March.

As the breeding season approaches, female jaguars leave their territory to call for a mate morning and night. Male jaguars head to her territory in response to her mating call. The males fight for a chance to mate with her. Only the tough male jaguar wins the fight to mate. 

A jaguar's estrus cycle lasts 37 days, and the estrus length lasts 17 days. You'll know a female is in estrus by vocalizations, flehmen, lordosis, rolling, and increased scent-marking activities. Once she's done mating with her male counterparts, female jaguars avoid the presence of them.

Leopards' mating behaviors are distinctly different from those of jaguars. During the estrous cycle, which lasts 46 days, male and female leopards form a hunting pair, while the heat period lasts 6-7 days. The mating pair often stays together shortly after mating.

A leopard’s gestation period ranges between 90 and 105 days, while a jaguar's ranges between 91 and 111 days. Jaguars give birth to two offspring, while leopards give birth to an average of three cubs. 

Leopards give birth in a cave, rock crevices, or hollow tree. The cubs, covered with black fur, weigh 400-700 at birth. Jaguar cubs open their eyes two weeks after birth, while leopard cubs open their eyes between 7-10 days. Leopard mothers wean their cubs off at four months, while jaguars wean cubs off at six months.

9. Lifespan

Jaguars and leopards have different lifespans. Leopards tend to live longer than jaguars. Jaguars live for 11 to 12 years, while leopards live for 12 to 15 years in the wild. Leopards also live longer in captivity. A leopard in a zoo can live up to 23 years, while a jaguar lives up to 20 years.

10. Conservation Status

jaguar side view
Jaguar, Photo by Nick Núñez on Pexels.

Jaguars and leopards are threatened with extinction. However, their positions on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) vary. The jaguar population is considered2 a near-threatened species, and even the US Fish and Wildlife Service considers jaguars an endangered species.

The IUCN classified leopards, on the other hand, as vulnerable to extinction. The African leopard population has reduced3 by over 30% in the previous years. The IUCN also listed the leopard population in Asia, the Middle East, and Northern Africa as endangered species.

These two cats are close to extinction because of human activities. Our activities contribute to the loss and fragmentation of their habitats. Jaguars and leopards love climbing trees and stalking their prey undercover, but rapid urbanization and deforestation destroy their natural environment. 

Also, humans are hunting them for sport and kill them illegally, especially in areas with cattle ranches.  

Melanin in Leopard and Jaguar  

black panther
Black Panther, Photo by Darshan Ganapathy on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

Black panthers refer to black jaguars and leopards. Both species have excess melanin. Black panthers still maintain their black rosettes, but you must look closely at the pattern. 

The black leopard population is native to Africa and Asia. In contrast, the black jaguar is native to Central and South America. 

Black panther exists because of the dominant allele in the genus Panthera. The genetic mutation makes the black panther an excellent, stealthy predator in the wild. 

Even if they are visually different, the blank panther has the same physical characteristics and behaviors as its species members.

Conclusion: Leopard vs. Jaguar   

The leopard and jaguar look similar. But there are many ways to tell them apart. For instance, jaguars have large barrel-like abdomen, while leopards have a slim body shape. They both have spotted coats, but the pattern of the spots is different. 

Also, leopards have long tails, while jaguars have shorter tails. We hope the differences will help you identify a leopard and jaguar the next time you see them. 

1

Davis, B. W., Li, G., & Murphy, W. J. (2010). Supermatrix and species tree methods resolve phylogenetic relationships within the big cats, Panthera (Carnivora: Felidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 56(1), 64–76.

2

Quigley, H., Foster, R., Petracca, L., Payan, E., Salom, R. & Harmsen, B. (2017). Panthera onca (errata version published in 2018). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T15953A123791436. 

3

Stein, A.B., Athreya, V., Gerngross, P., Balme, G., Henschel, P., Karanth, U., Miquelle, D., Rostro-García, S., Kamler, J.F., Laguardia, A., Khorozyan, I. & Ghoddousi, A. (2023). Panthera pardus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2023: e.T15954A215195554. 

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Leopard, Photo by Bernard DUPONT on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original) and Jaguar, Photo by Charles J. Sharp on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original)
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